It is said that you must set a thief to catch
a thief. But it is also said that there is
honour among thieves. Which saying does
this story illustrate?
Author: VICTOR CANNING
EVERYONE thought that Horace Danby was a good, honest citizen. He was
about fifty years old and unmarried, and he lived with a housekeeper
who worried over his health. In fact, he was usually very well and happy
except for attacks of hay fever in summer. He made locks and was
successful enough at his business to have two helpers. Yes, Horace
Danby was good and respectable — but not completely honest.
Fifteen years ago, Horace had served his first and only sentence in
a prison library. He loved rare, expensive books. So he robbed a safe
every year. Each year he planned carefully just what he would do,
stole enough to last for twelve months, and secretly bought the books
he loved through an agent.
Now, walking in the bright July sunshine, he felt sure that this
year’s robbery was going to be as successful as all the others. For
two weeks he had been studying the house at Shotover Grange, looking
at its rooms, its electric wiring, its paths and its garden. This afternoon
the two servants, who remained in the Grange while the family was
in London, had gone to the movies. Horace saw them go, and he felt
happy in spite of a little tickle of hay fever in his nose. He came out
from behind the garden wall, his tools carefully packed in a bag
on his back.
There were about fifteen thousand pounds’ worth of jewels in the
Grange safe. If he sold them one by one, he expected to get at least five
thousand, enough to make him happy for another year. There were
three very interesting books coming up for sale in the autumn. Now he
would get the money he wanted to buy them.
He had seen the housekeeper hang the key to the kitchen door on a
hook outside. He put on a pair of gloves, took the key, and opened the
door. He was always careful not to leave any fingerprints.
A small dog was lying in the kitchen. It stirred, made a noise, and
moved its tail in a friendly way.
“All right, Sherry,” Horace said as he passed. All you had to do to
keep dogs quiet was to call them by their right names, and show
The safe was in the drawing room, behind a rather poor painting.
Horace wondered for a moment whether he should collect pictures
instead of books. But they took up too much room. In a small house,
books were better.
There was a great bowl of flowers on the table, and Horace felt
his nose tickle. He gave a little sneeze and then put down his bag.
He carefully arranged his tools. He had four hours before the
The safe was not going to be hard to open. After all, he had lived
with locks and safes all his life. The burglar alarm was poorly built.
He went into the hall to cut its wire. He came back and sneezed loudly
as the smell of the flowers came to him again.
How foolish people are when they own valuable things, Horace
thought. A magazine article had described this house, giving a plan of
all the rooms and a picture of this room. The writer had even mentioned
that the painting hid a safe!
But Horace found that the flowers were hindering him in his work.
He buried his face in his handkerchief.
Then he heard a voice say from the doorway, “What is it? A cold or
Before he could think, Horace said, “Hay fever,” and found himself
The voice went on, “You can cure it with a special treatment, you
know, if you find out just what plant gives you the disease. I think
you’d better see a doctor, if you’re serious about your work. I heard you
from the top of the house just now.”
It was a quiet, kindly voice, but one with firmness in it. A woman
was standing in the doorway, and Sherry was rubbing against her.
She was young, quite pretty, and was dressed in red. She walked to
the fireplace and straightened the ornaments there.
“Down, Sherry,” she said. “Anyone would think I’d been away for a
month!” She smiled at Horace, and went on, “However, I came back
just in time, though I didn’t expect to meet a burglar.”
Horace had some hope because she seemed to be amused at meeting
him. He might avoid trouble if he treated her the right way. He replied,
“I didn’t expect to meet one of the family.”
She nodded. “I see what an inconvenience it is for you to meet me.
What are you going to do?”
Horace said, “My first thought was to run.”
“Of course, you could do that. But I would telephone the police and
tell them all about you. They’d get you at once.”
Horace said, “I would, of course, cut the telephone wires first and
then...,” he hesitated, a smile on his face, “I would make sure that you
could do nothing for some time. A few hours would be enough.”
She looked at him seriously. “You’d hurt me?”
Horace paused, and then said, “I think I was trying to frighten you
when I said that.”
“You didn’t frighten me.”
Horace suggested, “It would be nice if you would forget you ever
saw me. Let me go.”
The voice was suddenly sharp. “Why should I? You were going to
rob me. If I let you go, you’ll only rob someone else. Society must be
protected from men like you.”
Horace smiled. “I’m not a man who threatens society. I steal only
from those who have a lot of money. I steal for a very good reason. And
I hate the thought of prison.”
She laughed, and he begged, thinking that he had persuaded her,
“Look, I have no right to ask you for anything, but I’m desperate. Let
me go and I promise never to do this kind of thing again. I really
She was silent, watching him closely. Then she said, “You are really
afraid of going to prison, aren’t you?”
She came over to him shaking her head. “I have always liked the
wrong kind of people.”
She picked up a silver box from the table and took a cigarette from
it. Horace, eager to please her and seeing that she might help him,
took off his gloves and gave her his cigarette lighter.
“You’ll let me go?” He held the lighter towards her.
“Yes, but only if you’ll do something for me.”
“Anything you say.”
“Before we left for London, I promised my husband to take my jewels
to our bank; but I left them here in the safe. I want to wear them to a
party tonight, so I came down to get them, but…”
Horace smiled. “You’ve forgotten the numbers to open the safe,
“Yes,” replied the young lady.
“Just leave it to me and you’ll have them within an hour. But I’ll
have to break your safe.”
“Don’t worry about that. My husband won’t be here for a month,
and I’ll have the safe mended by that time.”
And within an hour
Horace had opened the safe,
given her the jewels, and
gone happily away.
For two days he kept his
promise to the kind young
lady. On the morning of the
third day, however, he
thought of the books he
wanted and he knew he would
have to look for another safe.
But he never got the chance
to begin his plan. By noon a
policeman had arrested him
for the jewel robbery at
His fingerprints, for he
had opened the safe without
gloves, were all over the
room, and no one believed him when he said that the wife of the owner
of the house had asked him to open the safe for her. The wife herself,
a gray-haired, sharp-tongued woman of sixty, said that the story
Horace is now the assistant librarian in the prison. He often thinks
of the charming, clever young lady who was in the same profession as
he was, and who tricked him. He gets very angry when anyone talks
about ‘honour among thieves’.
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